How Graz marries world-class culture and architecture with a relaxed, Mediterranean vibe.
At first glance, Graz, Austria’s second-largest city and the capital of the southern province of Styria, is the quintessential Central European affair. It’s got a Unesco-protected old town straddling a river, streets of stately 19th-century tenements and a clocktower on a crag. On closer inspection, however, there’s as much Mediterranean here as Mitteleuropean. Perhaps it’s the mild climate or simply the proximity to Italy and Slovenia; the latter’s border is less than an hour away by car, while Italy is only a little further afield. Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that about a fifth of the population are students. Whatever the reason, Graz’s soul seems southern.
Though red-tiled roofs and a medieval feel dominate some corners of the city, there’s a good dose of contemporary architecture here: the Graz School of architects spearheaded modern designs from the 1960s, while the 2000s gave the city not just the Kunsthaus but the Murinsel – a ufo-like steel platform in the middle of the fast-flowing Mur that’s tied to the banks by a footbridge.
City visitors should brave the climb to the top of Schlossberg Hill; there’s a funicular for the less energetic. One of the symbols of Graz, the tree-covered hill and clock tower are all that remain of the city’s former castle, which was destroyed on Napoleon’s nod in 1809. Beyond the city limits, Graz, unlike other major Austrian cities, isn’t surrounded by mountains. Instead it is encircled by vineyards and orchards that add to a palpably Italian feel topped off by piazzas that are more akin to Florence or Trieste than Vienna.
Come summer, the city’s pavements and squares brim with tables placed outside cafés, while the trees lining the streets and promenades bloom – but not before the Diagonale film festival takes place in late March, marking the beginning of spring. Showcasing the best of Austrian cinema, Diagonale brings the city together for a week of screenings and debate. Another unmissable entry on Graz’s festival calendar is the Styrian Autumn, a month-long celebration of contemporary art, music, film and theatre, which runs in September and October.
In June the Fifteen Seconds festival is a forum for business, innovation and creativity but the arts remain the city’s strong suit. A 2003 European Capital of Culture, Graz is home to a huge number of museums, considering its modest population of 330,000. Chief among them is the contemporary Kunsthaus on the River Mur. Designed by British architects Sir Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, this striking blancmange of a building is not to everyone’s taste but the Alte Galerie – which displays canvasses by Cranach and Breughel – and the Joanneumsviertel complex offer more traditional architecture.
The centre of Graz dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries but there’s a young energy here hinting that the city is bored of playing second fiddle to Vienna. From our trip, we can see why.
stay: Grand Hôtel Wiesler: This stucco-fronted riverside mansion is part of a group of hotels belonging to Florian Weitzer, who also owns the nearby Hotel Weitzer. Book a room with a bathtub in the window. There’s a great restaurant downstairs.
eat: Frankowitsch: This hallowed breakfast joint and café offers the best sandwiches in Graz. Whatever you got up to the night before, these Brötchen go brilliantly with a glass of Schlumberger sparkling wine.
eat: Freiblick: Astounding views are common in Graz and this rooftop café looks out over the old town and Schlossberg. Take advantage of its extended breakfast hours (until 16.30) or choose from an international lunch menu.
eat: Der Steirer: Laid-back yet formal, this restaurant on the ground floor of the Hotel Weitzer Graz is famed for its meat-heavy Styrian cuisine and generous portions, which should be tackled wisely.
drink: Ernst Fuchs Bar: Named after the prolific Austrian artist, this bar is part of a sumptuous 16th-century palace. It serves great cocktails and shots, and plays host to live jazz on Mondays.
shop: Kastner & Öhler: This branch of southern Austria’s premier department store supplies women, men and all mountain-climbers alike.
Gettingto Graz: Easily accessible by bus, car or train from anywhere in Austria, Graz has an airport that reaches key European cities including Munich, Zürich and Amsterdam. Connections increase in number in summer.